Funding cuts impact the magic of new science
June 19, 2015 | by Chris Kalaboukis
This is an Op-ed story from USA Today that caught my eye for a number of reasons. Yes, deep budget cuts will always impact research and development projects, whether at the federal level or in your own company. Scientific discovery isn’t free most of the time. Secondly, this piece contains a lot of interesting links and statistics that you might find helpful and interesting.
The author contends that Innovation and economic vibrancy lose out when Congress skimps on scientific research. What are your thoughts?
New science is the closest thing to magic needed to solve seemingly intractable problems in every domain from medicine and manufacturing to energy and the environment.
The U.S. is number one in global spending on research and development — for now. That leadership is rapidly eroding: In other countries, unlike here, spending (as a share of GDP) is holding steady, or even rising in places like South Korea, Australia and China. And, more critically, U.S. spending on basic research — the seed corn of the future — is retreating faster.
Economist Robert Solow won the 1987 Nobel Prize for proving what many already knew intuitively: technology innovation is the engine of economic growth and brings huge societal benefits.(search technology remains”) In fact, economic historian Joel Mokyr has called technology progress the only true “free lunch” in public policy: with innovation, society gets back far more than it pays out. And basic research is the foundation.
But in today’s budget battles in Washington D.C., policymakers and bureaucrats are more focused than ever on “useful” science. The problem is that foundational innovation is rarely obvious in advance to anyone, much less to those inside the Beltway. The demand that research be “useful” is, ironically, antithetical to what ultimately yields some of the world’s most useful productive advances.
Accordingly, here are five facts Congress should keep in mind when thinking about funding American science.
1. The federal government funds over 90 percent of all basic research— the pursuit of knowledge. That makes sense. Corporations are near-term focused and pursue industrial research for visible profits; even Google’s “long term” looks out at most five to 10 years for profitability . The government should fund long-term science and resist the temptation and lobbying to spend on industrial-class projects. Leave industry to industry which has both the money and appetite.
2. Nearly 90% of federal R&D money is controlled by just five of the 29 civilian government research agencies. Congress should increase the diversity of authority and spread money and decision-making out among more agencies. The future is far too uncertain for science’s promise to rest in the hands of so few. Moreover — and more radically — funding authority should be shifted largely to the hundreds of research universities themselves where the work actually happens.
3. Federal research money increasingly goes to old guys and gals. The share of National Institute of Health grants awarded to researchers over 60 years old is greater than for those under 40. This stems from bureaucratic risk aversion and is antithetical to creativity. The fix? Trust. Again, let the research universities identify the talent. It’s not that university managers are inherently more honest or egalitarian than their federal counterparts — though, as a minimum, concentration of the power-of-the-purse does create perverse incentives — it’s just that there are many more of the former, and they are on the front lines. Proximity and diversity of decision-making are our friends here. Analogies are imperfect, but one cannot imagine letting a few federal agencies make the hiring decisions for every local school.
4. A rising tide of regulations is crushing scientists and wasting taxpayer money. The government’s own surveys show that researchers waste nearly half their time on administrative tasks. That’s nuts. To ensure accountability, surely 21st century software can be designed to Uber-ize unproductive bureaucratic drudgery.
5. Some good news: philanthropy is now the fastest-growing funding source for university research constituting nearly 30% of total budgets. Congress should increase incentives for philanthropic — and private corporate — spending here. How about an enhanced tax credit for undirected funding of basic research?
What’s more, polls — which we know influence politicians — show that over 80% of the public supports government funding of R&D, even in our budget-constrained times.
We should keep in mind the law formulated by mathematician, physicist, writer and futurist, Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Mark P. Mills, Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow, is author of Basic Research and the Innovation Frontier.